A two-month sting by the Merced Police Department led to the arrests of nine men who attempted to have sex or share harmful material with minors. Another man also was arrested on suspicion of acting as a “pimp” for a 14-year-old girl, police said.
The Merced Police Department’s Disruptive Area Response Team conducted a sting operation, dubbed “Operation Make Our Children Safe,” engaged suspects in online conversation in which suspects would knowingly make arrangements to engage in sex acts with minors, according to a news release from the Police Department.
The operation was an example of the Merced Police Department adapting to the changing ways criminals are operating, Capt. Matt Williams said.
For example, Williams said, a few years it was common for prostitution to be arranged in face-to-face meetings on the streets, but now such arrangements are made online.
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“We realize people are always changing their game. If you don’t change with them, you’re not going to do well catching criminals,” Williams said.
Arrested in the sting operation was Aaron Shomber, a 48-year-old Atwater resident, 36-year-old James Craven of Merced, 23-year-old Merced resident Joshua Hernandez, 53-year-old Lionel Falcon, 50-year-old Merced resident Verne Elledge, 61-year-old Lathrop resident Jim Garewal, 28-year-old Merced resident Shawn Vargas, 50-year-old Merced resident Randy Golder and 56-year-old Merced resident Domingo Gevana.
Charges range from felonious contact with a minor for a sexual purpose, to misdemeanor solicitation of a prostitute, according to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.
Sentences for those charges can be informal probation and treatment programs, or formal probation and jail time, Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates said.
California law allows police officers to pose as minors online to catch individuals trying to contact children for a sexual purpose, Gates said.
During the operation, police posed as 16- and 17-year-old girls, Gates said.
It didn’t take long for the suspects to respond to an online advertisement of a female, posted by investigators in February, Williams said.
“The ad was originally non-sexual in nature,” Williams said. “But we made it perfectly clear when they started responding that (the suspects’ target) was underage.”
A few of the respondents stopped the conversation at that point, Williams said. But many kept the conversation going.
Shomber was arrested Feb. 20 at a local fast food restaurant after police said he arranged to meet a juvenile for sex in exchange for narcotics.
Craven tried to meet a juvenile at Stephen Leonard Park on Feb. 22 and take her to his house for sex, authorities said.
Hernandez was arrested March 1 at a Merced residence after police said he arrived to meet and share sex and drugs with a juvenile.
On March 13, Elledge was arrested at a Merced residence after he arrived to have sex with a minor, officers said.
Garewal was arrested March 15 near Golden Valley High School after he urged a juvenile to ditch school and leave with him, according to police.
Vargas was arrested at a Merced residence on March 21 after investigators said he sent pornographic material and arrived to have sex with a minor.
Golder was arrested March 22 at his home for sending harmful matter to a minor, according to officers.
Police arrested Gevana at a Merced home after he arrived to have sex with a juvenile police said.
In an unrelated case, the DART team also arrested a 22-year-old Merced resident for acting as a 14-year-old girl’s “pimp,” the police department said.
Daniel Luzania was booked into Merced County Main Jail on suspicion of human trafficking of a juvenile and pimping.
On April 12, officers learned that Luzania was posting pictures of the teenage girl in online prostitution advertisements, negotiating transactions and taking money for sex acts with the girl, according to the posting, according to police.
Undercover officers posed as clients and arranged to meet the girl. Police returned her to her family, officers said.
Luzania was arrested without incident, police said.
The Valley Crisis Center director Chee Yang said the organization confidentially helps and supports victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
“There is a safe, confidential place to go and find help for either yourself, family members,” she said.
Williams said he hopes the arrests serve as a warning to criminals who pimp or solicit prostitutes, especially those who feel Merced is “easy pickings” when nearby Fresno police step up enforcement.
“I tell you what, they’re wrong,” Williams said. “Especially if you’re pimping an underage girl, we’ll pull out all the stops using all the resources we have.”
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562